Strangers In A Strange Land

Posted on September 19, 2020 • See the rest of our news

Imagine two journeys in the early 1900s:

The first starts in a mining town in England where recruiters from Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd are trying to woo experienced miners to Canada. The recruiters show you Canadian Pacific Railway posters of beautiful mountain ranges, harvest photos with heaping baskets of glossy red apples and images of miles of rolling prairie. The pretty pictures supplement the pattern from the agents: good wages and a generous loan to pay ships passage and train fare for you and your family to come to Cumberland. Repayment for transportation will be deducted from your wages weekly and if you stay for a full year, the entire amount is refunded as a bonus. 

The miners come in throngs but most don’t stay long. Working conditions are much more dangerous than the mines in England and any complaints or concerns or labour unrest results in blacklisting. But the miners have their families with them and their choices are open. They stay in Canada, just not in the mines. Some opt for logging or fishing and some become small farmers and buy land, something not possible in the old country. They settle in communities with their like-minded countrymen, become Canadian citizens, and make a new life.

The second journey starts on a crowded pier in Canton (now Guangzhou) China. Labourers are vying for the attention of a work agent. The agent is a man familiar from their home village who has returned to China at the behest of a Cumberland Chinatown merchant, or perhaps he is a stranger, some white man who speaks Cantonese hired by the coal company with a quota to fill. On offer are good coal mining jobs in Canada for men who are willing to work hard.  No mining experience necessary.

There are a couple of catches. 

The first catch is that Canada has instituted a “head tax” of $500.00 per person for any Chinese man woman or child who wants to emigrate to Canada in an effort to discourage the tide of immigration from China.  It is an unbelievable amount of money for any one person to raise in a country where famine, exploding population growth and government corruption have kept wages languishing at the equivalent of seven cents a day. It is an impossible dream to imagine anyone would ever raise enough money to emigrate to “Gold Mountain”. 

The agent tells you that the colliery company will pay the passage and the head tax and in return, you will repay the money with weekly deductions from your earnings. You will be paid half what the white miners are paid but given the lack of mining experience that seems a fair risk to take, right? In actuality, Chinese workers are not legally allowed to work underground, a law that the Dunsmuir mines openly flout. With ongoing labour shortages, the colliery just pays the fines. It is business as usual because cheap labour, even with the upfront cost associated with recruiting from China, is too good to pass up. 

The second catch? The mines are deadly. 175 Chinese men will die in the Cumberland mines. And even if they don’t die or become badly crippled by the work, when they gain experience and training as a miner’s helper, the Chinese, unlike unskilled white labour, aren’t legally allowed to apply for a mine ticket so are forever stuck in the lowest paying jobs. There is no chance of advancement or opportunity to earn enough money to bring over their family. No end of repayment bonus for the Chinese workers. Years of indenture, alone, thousands of miles from home. 

Eighty percent of the Chinese who come have wives and families back in China. Some save enough money to go back but for most, it is a one-way trip. Sojourners with no real sense of place who work six days a week, living as cheaply as possible to send as much money back to their families as they can. These are farm boys: they make a garden plot to grow vegetables, fish a little, learn English at the Mission Church and build community in this swampy unwelcoming place. They are strangers in a strange land. 

And they stay strangers. In the early 1900s Cumberland, Chinatown is self-contained and there are few reasons for the Chinese to come into Cumberland. Language and culture are so different it takes a concerted effort to make friends outside of Chinatown. It is also a risk because anti-Asian sentiment is an undercurrent that cannot be ignored. 

A few merchant class men in Cumberland Chinatown became naturalized citizens but not many. Chinese children born in Cumberland are British subjects but prohibited by B.C. Law from being considered Canadian citizens. Chinese men trained in professions such as law, pharmacy, and accounting in universities, cannot join the professional societies as their first requirement for membership is Canadian citizenship. This law does not change until 1949.

One hundred years on, Cumberland is a vibrant, growing community steeped in settler history honouring those first miners and their descendants who still live in the area. After all the local mines close in the 1950s and a number of years as a sleepy forgotten backwater, the village reinvents itself as a mountain biking destination. Newcomers are surprised to discover the rich history of the Chinese Canadian pioneers but there is little evidence left of Chinatown, at its peak a community of 1500. 

All that remains are seventeen interpretive panels unveiled in 2017, placed where buildings stood until they were destroyed by fire in 1968, a picnic pavilion built-in 2010 with funds raised by former Chinatown merchant families and one building: a 13 x 17′ x 6′ rustic dwelling built-in 1888 now known as Jumbo’s cabin. 

Hor Sue Mah, also know as Wong Gong, (Jumbo) was born May 24th, 1900 in China. He came to Cumberland in 1919 and worked as a general labourer. He would have paid the head tax but there is no indication he ever worked in the Cumberland mines. As Norm Leung said in an article in the Comox Valley Record in July 2015:

“He’s one of those guys who went to work with a tin bucket with his rice in there, and pumped those rail cars from one end to the other to fix the ties and the rails, that was his job. He lived to a good ripe age.” 

He was called Jumbo because he was large for a Chinese man and everyone had a nickname in Cumberland. His cabin is the legacy because he was one of the last residents of Chinatown and the cabin is the last structure standing, bearing witness. The last opportunity to bridge that gap in language and culture between the communities that were tied together for so long, yet separate. Hor Sue Mah had a few friends in Cumberland, but most of his friends were within the Chinese community. 

In his later years, Jumbo would bring a folding chair and people-watch in front of Tarbell’s or head down to the park and watch the children play basketball. He gave out oranges and lichee and lucky money for Chinese New Years. He had a sweet tooth and liked Cadbury chocolate bars. Boys would catch fish in the wetlands behind Chinatown and Jumbo would “buy” the fish from the children, exchanging candies for fish. He liked fresh fish. And the children enjoyed catching them for him.

After what was left of Chinatown burned down in 1968, Jumbo moved to the upstairs of the Cumberland Hotel, and eventually to an old age home in Vancouver. He kept in touch with the former residents of Cumberland Chinatown who had moved to Vancouver and attended some of the Cumberland Chinatown Reunion picnics that still take place in Vancouver. Jumbo’s cabin became the last physical symbol of an entire community, but how much do we really know about the man himself? 

When Jumbo died on May 28th, 1987, the death certificate was signed by his grandson. It turns out that Jumbo was one of the 80% of Chinese workers who had a wife back in China and at least one child. The form indicated that his wife, Mui Ho, died before him. There was no evidence of family in Jumbo’s cabin. Maybe he wrote letters home and sent money all those years but never spoke about it outside the Chinese community. He moved into Jumbo’s cabin in 1931 after a fire destroyed his old dwelling. Did he have family photos or other mementoes that were destroyed in that fire? 

Communication to and from China, challenging at the best of times, became almost impossible because of the political situation in China in the 1930s and during WWII, and also later during the Communist takeover. We don’t know if Jumbo lost contact with his wife or was ever reunited, or how his grandson ended up in Canada, and now we will never know, we can only speculate. 

Two journeys, but only the first one has a complete story and a satisfying ending. The second journey will always remain the story of a stranger in a strange land and that is our loss.

Photo Credits:
CPR poster unknown artist circa 1893 from UBC Library digital collection.
Jumbo 1968 photo taken by Heather Aston.
Cumberland Chinatown Reunion Picnic 1978 [Jumbo centre front ], Chinatown News Magazine, photo by Kim Mah from the collection of May Gee.
Jumbo’s cabin 2015 taken by Dawn Copeman [Featured Image]